4/20 provides gateway for debate over pot

For many students, last Friday was just another day spent cramming for midterms, hopping from meetings to practices and gearing up for Goodrich.

While some view 4/20 as an excuse to smoke pot, others perceive it as a political statement advocating drug reform. (Sevonna Brown/Photo Editor)

But for some, 4/20 presented a unique opportunity to kick back, relax and become intimately acquainted with the ever-popular Mary Jane.

Last year, thedailybeast.com named Williams one of the 50 “druggiest colleges” in America. The website calculated its rankings based on the number of on-campus arrests, as well as surveys of student drug use. The College’s ranking may appear inflated due to its close proximity to Williamstown Elementary and the College’s daycare (since penalties for possession are harsher in near facilities for children). Nonetheless, campus cannabis culture is worth closer examination. Is reefer madness really rampant at the College? And if so, is it causing problems?

David Kruger ’14, a member of Students for a Sustainable Drug Policy (SSDP), maintains that while pot smoking is fairly prevalent, it does not generally pose a threat to students’ safety. “Drugs are something that exist like anything else. If you eat too many Big Macs, you could kill yourself,” he said.

Kruger believes that drug use is a highly personal choice. “Everyone makes the decision for themselves,” he said, emphasizing that as long as students are safe and responsible, individuals’ occasional dope smoking shouldn’t concern our community.

However, others point out that the implications of marijuana use can be broader in scope. According to Alex Verschoor-Kirss ’13, smoking pot shouldn’t be framed as a completely individual decision. “It does affect a much larger community,” he explained. Though Verschoor-Kirss has no moral objection to the use of marijuana specifically, he believes that it can inconvenience friends and neighbors: “Who enjoys returning to their dorm looking to do work, take a nap, etc., only to be driven away by the noticeable smell of weed?” he said.

It appears that Verschoor-Kirss isn’t the only student expressing these views. According to Dave Boyer, director of Campus Safety and Security, the majority of tip-offs about marijuana use are called in by other students.

The process by which Security handles cases of marijuana possession is also an issue of contention. Kruger believes that American culture more broadly tends to be unduly harsh on pot users, while remaining lenient when dealing with other substances. As Kruger points out, many college campuses across the nation consider marijuana use a more severe infraction than underage drinking. “At a lot of campuses, there is the recognition that students drink alcohol. Schools don’t do that with marijuana,” he said. However, Kruger noted that while a number of deaths result from binge drinking each year, it’s almost physically impossible to overdose on pot.

But according to Boyer, Security deals with underage drinking and marijuana usage in a similar manner. As with underage drinkers, students caught with marijuana for the first time are called in for a meeting with Boyer or Associate Director of Security Tony Sinico to discuss potential consequences for health and future employability. After a second offense, students are referred to the Health Center and enrolled in an education program called “Straight Dope.” Following a third offense, students are referred to the deans’ office.

“My feeling is that we’re lenient compared to most schools,” Boyer said. “Two attempts are given to educate the student before we refer them to the deans.”

However, Boyer noted that because marijuana is an illegal substance, Security officers are required by law to contact local police if they find stashes on campus. “We cannot confiscate it. We can’t legally possess it or do anything with it ourselves,” Boyer explained. “Whereas with alcohol, there’s no issue with us disposing it. We can handle it, take it away and fine people where it’s appropriate.”

While Kruger recognizes that Security is legally obligated to refer drug cases to local police, he believes that such policies are restrictive and inhibit Security’s ability to do its job. “Security’s job is to make everybody safe at school. We need a policy that allows students and Security to work together rather than pit them against each other when their goals are the same,” Kruger said.

Indeed, it appears that much of Security’s marijuana policy is dictated by legislative forces outside of the College’s control. “This is the way we have to handle drugs,” Boyer said. “We don’t have a choice.”

In the commonwealth of Massachusetts, possession of over one ounce of marijuana constitutes a criminal offense. However, a recent revision to the law established that possession of one ounce or less is classified as a civil infraction. Much like with a speeding ticket, offenders are required to pay a fine, but the offense does not go on their permanent record.

However, Boyer noted that although marijuana has been decriminalized, it is still illegal. “We’ll often have students that we meet with tell us it’s legal. It’s not legal. It’s still illegal. It’s just not criminal,” he said.

Boyer expressed a concern that outright legalization of marijuana – which is being debated by politicians at state and national levels – would lead to greater student use. “After marijuana was decriminalized, we saw a major uptick in reported marijuana cases on campus,” he said. “I’m extrapolating that the same thing would happen if we were to make it legal.”

However, Kruger and the rest of SSDP maintain that legalization would alleviate a number of problems and allow Security and police to spend energy and manpower on more pressing matters.

In theory, 4/20 presents advocates of drug law reform with an opportunity to discuss these polices and pursue progress. However, students have differing opinions on whether 4/20 is a politically poignant statement of solidarity or a convenient pretext for skipping class. According to Verschoor-Kirss, “While to a devoted few it might serve as an opportunity to make coherent arguments against overly repressive drug policies, for a large majority of individuals that would not seem to be the case. It strikes me as just another excuse to smoke pot.”

Likewise, Kruger has mixed opinions about the so-called holiday. On one hand, he believes that it is valuable for proponents of legalization to stand in solidarity and push for policy reform. However, he fears the negative backlash that irresponsible individuals may provoke. “There are people who will make good publicity into bad publicity by being idiots. It’s a stereotyped celebration by opponents of the legalization movement, and the actions of a lot of people don’t help,” he said.

While 4/20 may have meant different things to different individuals at the College, it appears that for many students, it was just another day in the purple bubble. In fact, Boyer described last Friday as “a complete non-event.” According to him, “For us, 4/20 was just the same as 4/19 and 4/21.”